Fwd (GLW): SOUTH KOREA: What went wrong with O20?

Alan Bradley alanb at SPAMelf.brisnet.org.au
Sun Oct 29 07:04:52 MST 2000

The following article appears in the current issue of Green Left Weekly

SOUTH KOREA: What went wrong with O20?

SEOUL — The protests against the Asia-Europe parliamentary meetings (ASEM)
on October 20 (O20) in Seoul were very lively, youthful and colourful (see
GLW #425). However, they also reflected the most pressing problems facing
the South Korean left movement.

In Europe, Australia and the United States, the rise of a new movement
against the global neo-liberalism has begun. A new generation of energetic
radicals are jettisoning the passivity of their forebears. In the process,
they have begun to inspire older layers of working people and are
reawakening the sense of solidarity with the oppressed people of the
countries of the Third World.

It is different in South Korea. A radicalisation of the student and
democracy movements culminated in the great upsurge of 1987, which drew in
the mass of industrial workers and began today's democratic labour
movement. But just as the movement was ascending, giving rise to vigorous
discussions on political strategy and party organisation, the collapse of
Eastern Europe brought chaos.


The majority of the left retreated politically, while remaining within a
labour movement that was continuing to win major gains. This was in no
small part due to the intervention of a layer of class-struggle militants
and revolutionaries.

Instead of a new mass political formation, the movement in 1995 produced
the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), which brought together the
militant democratic unions that had mushroomed since 1987. This was also
the fruit of hard work by the militant and revolutionary minority in the
workers' movement.

The KCTU's first major test was the general strike of winter 1996-97
against the revision of labour laws. The defeat of the general strike
clarified the political differentiation that had taken place within the

The reformist majority drew the conclusion that they needed friendly forces
in parliament. In contrast, the advance of the labour movement to a general
strike inspired the revolutionaries, who concluded that what was needed
more than ever was a political leadership of the mass economic struggle.

These differences hardened further with the beginning of the economic
crisis in late 1997 and the inauguration of the liberal-populist Kim
Dae-jung regime shortly afterwards. With no strategic alternative to
capitalism, the KCTU leadership began to compromise with the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) and its structural adjustment program.

The political differentiation came to be expressed organisationally. In
early 1999, the parliamentarist Democratic Labour Party (DLP) was formed,
primarily to contest the general elections. In August 1999, revolutionaries
and militants regrouped with the formation of Power of the Working Class

Following the 1987 downfall of military rule, a liberal citizens' movement
began organising to transform many of the deeply conservative and
repressive features of South Korean society and culture. Its fundamental
political character immediately drew it to the Kim Dae-jung regime and a
cozy relationship has developed. The liberal citizens' groups have gained
influence and legitimacy through participation in government institutions,
while the regime has used the citizens' groups as cheerleaders for its
program of social consensus and economic liberalisation.


This year, the KCTU's DLP leaders have flirted with the citizens' movement
in their search for wider support outside the working class to cover their
retreat. For instance, both movements opposed the right of doctors to
strike in July.

O20 was organised by an alliance of the People's Rally Committee (PRC),
which was the largest component; Citizens' Action Against the WTO and
Investment Treaties; and the ASEM Non-Government Organisation Forum
(Mingan), a peak body of the liberal citizens' movement and non-government
organisations (NGOs)

In reality, the leadership of O20 was in the hands of the DLP-oriented
leadership of the KCTU, which was the largest force in the PRC. The KCTU
tops were reinforced by their liberal allies in Mingan (in which the KCTU
also participates).

Problems resulted because the KCTU leadership has an ambiguous attitude
toward the Kim Dae-jung regime, while Mingan has an ambiguous attitude to
ASEM and is fully behind Kim Dae-jung.

Mingan views ASEM as a qualitatively different institution to the IMF and
the World Trade Organisation. It believes ASEM can accommodate the wishes
of NGOs to an extent that the others cannot. Thus, it supported a policy of
“critical intervention” in the ASEM process and opposed the tactic of
blockading the ASEM meeting.

This led the KCTU to also, in effect, oppose the blockade, while paying lip
service to it. The turnout of less than 1000 at the conference venue on the
morning of October 20 and the feebleness of the action clearly revealed the
brakes that had been applied by the KCTU.

The KCTU's true intentions were revealed in a manoeuver at a media
conference on October 16. There, Mingan and the KCTU unilaterally decided —
and publicised — that the main O20 action would be a rally at Olympic Park,
far from the ASEM venue. They had the prior agreement of the PRC and
Citizens' Action for this announcement.

There was a naked material basis for this. As the PWC explained its October
19 statement: “The NGO Forum [Mingan] clearly showed what the `critical
intervention' line is all about their acceptance of sponsorship of more
than 120 million won (A$200,000) from the German and other European
governments, and more than 150 million won (A$250,000) from the Kim
Dae-jung regime, for the opening of the NGO Forum [meeting with the ASEM
representatives] which, to them, is the all-important event.”

This statement caused great strife within Mingan but the KCTU staunchly
chose to remain compromised. In the PWC's words: “Despite the fact that 13
organisations, led by the National Association of Farmers' Organisations
and human rights groups, withdrew from the NGO Forum on the basis of its
acceptance of the government subsidy and problems of perspective, the KCTU
has still not withdrawn from the forum.”

The most serious consequence of the KCTU's reformist attitude may be a
weakening of the fight against the second wave of capitalist restructuring,
planned to be completed by February next year.

The anti-ASEM struggle should have been used to gather the mass momentum to
fight the restructuring. Instead, by refusing to build a militant movement
against ASEM with the argument that “the dynamics to struggle are just not
there”, the KCTU tops created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Weakness of opposition forces

In Seattle, Melbourne and Prague, the reformism of the union leaderships
resulted in their being outflanked on the left by the growth of a more
radical movement that refused to scrape and bow to the bureaucrats of the
old left. In Melbourne, this wider movement attracted a significant section
of the Victorian unions.

However in Seoul, the wider movement outside the KCTU remains under the
leadership of the tripartite coalition in which the KCTU is the main force.

This is due to three interrelated reasons:

•The relatively early stage of the political differentiation on the left
and the newness of ideological-cultural liberalisation. In short, there are
many illusions in the reformists and the liberal Kim Dae-jung regime.

•The conformism of young people in South Korea, whereas elsewhere they are
the crucial force in the new movement against global neoliberalism. This is
due to a deeply entrenched conservatism that still governs South Korean
society, a key feature of which is a cultural acceptance of age hierarchy
found in few other places in the world. The left has done little to
challenge this and age hierarchies and pecking orders also exist within
left organisations.

•Most importantly, the absence of weighty “oppositionist” forces — like
Resistance and the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia, or the young
semi-organised anarchists in the US and Europe — that consciously seek to
break from the bureaucratic, “use-the-right-channels” left. The key problem
in South Korea is the weakness of the radical left due to its newness and
lack of implantation among youth and social movements.

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